When OWN was still struggling to get off the ground, skeptics wondered whether Oprah Winfrey would inject enough of her time, talents and energy to make it fly.
With Saturday’s debut finally approaching, it’s a testament to the power of Winfrey’s operation that the narrative has reversed almost completely: OWN executives now stress that the network won’t be all Oprah, all the time.
Instead, they say, the network will be a showcase curated by Winfrey, displaying other on-air talents she has cultivated in 25 years as the queen of television.
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As OWN CEO Christina Norman tells TheWrap: “It’s one person and everything she stands for defining the brand … empowering the audience, giving them the tools they need to take charge of their lives.”
And, OK, Winfrey may turn up just a bit, here and there. Or more often. Or whenever she wants.
After all, the network’s biggest selling point has shown the won’t hesitate to get involved — like the time she agreed to host her own show just as things started getting bumpy with co-owner Discovery Communications over startup cash.
OWN will debut with an hour-long, typically polished tour, conducted by Winfrey herself, of all the network has to offer. Then – if all goes well – she’ll cede as much airtime as she possibly can to the network’s other names.
But not cede it completely.
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Her name will still be in the title of one-quarter of the currently slated shows. She’ll star in one show airing soon and another that could air by year’s end. And she’ll turn up on shows including “Oprah Presents Master Class” which will feature advice from Winfrey as well as Jay-Z, Simon Cowell, Sidney Poitier, Dr. Maya Angelou, Diane Sawyer, Lorne Michaels, and Dr. Condoleezza Rice.
Is it ego? That would be the easy criticism. In fact, Winfrey’s moniker is essential to the network’s vitality.
No network has been so completely built around a single person’s personality, interests, and worldview. Even the pre-debut attempts to lower expectations are perfectly aligned with Winfrey’s doctrine of self-improvement: Her executives acknowledge bumps – both past and inevitable – yet remain relentlessly optimistic.
The network plans 600 hours of original programming in its first year, spread among Winfrey’s deep bench of experts, stars, and would-be stars. But if the network’s personalities can’t match her for sheer watchability – and really, who can? – Winfrey will jump into the fold.
“My name’s going to show up on that grid a lot,” Winfrey told the Wall Street Journal earlier this year, referring to the OWN schedule.
Lest anyone get the idea that she’ll just be an on-air figurehead, she stressed that she’s active in programming, too: “I am hands-on, digging in there, looking through every tape,” Winfrey told the paper. “I’m not just up to my knees. I’m up to my thighs.”
Winfrey has already proven her knack for personally pitching in when things turned problematic.
In August, after OWN co-owner Discovery Communications said it was burning through its $100 million commitment to the network more quickly than expected, Winfrey agreed to host or star in an OWN show after “The Oprah Winfrey Show” ends.
Discovery boosted its funding by $89 million.
The network’s launch has also faced delays – it was originally scheduled to air more than a year ago – and Norman said no one expects everything to be perfect from now on.
“I think the next year for us is going to be a lot of learning,” she said. “Any business is built over time. Oprah built her legacy over 25 years, not one airing.”
The network, which is replacing Discovery Health, will be available in 85 million homes – 3.5 million of them added just this week in a deal with Cablevision.
Winfrey’s strongest early on-air presence will be with her first reality show, “Season 25: Oprah Behind the Scenes,” chronicling the farewell season of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.” But she’ll influence the network as much by guiding what viewers see as by appearing herself.
If Winfrey herself won’t pervade a given show, her message of self-improvement will. “Ask Oprah’s All-Stars,” airing four times in January, will place Dr. Phil, Suze Orman, and Dr. Mehmet Oz on one stage to answer viewers’ questions. “Enough Already! With Peter Walsh” will encourage people to cut out their household clutter. “In the Bedroom with Dr. Laura Berman” will solve couple’s sex crises.
Even the shows with no built-in lessons are aspirational, including “Your OWN Show: Oprah’s Search for the Next TV Star,” in which would-be TV personalities selected through online and in-person auditions will compete for an OWN show of their own.
Then there are shows led by other Winfrey-approved personalities, including “The Gayle King Show” – starring Winfrey’s best friend and based on her successful radio show – and “Our America with Lisa Ling.”
Once freed of her network responsibilities, Winfrey will host “Oprah’s Next Chapter,” in which she’ll leave her studio setup to travel the world, interviewing celebrities, and anyone else who strikes her fancy.